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Airmen Visit Rwanda Genocide Memorial

By Capt. Heather Healy, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

KIGALI, Rwanda, Nov. 2, 2004 – On Oct. 30 a C-130 sat unceremoniously on the tarmac of Kigali International Airport here, waiting for the arrival of Rwandan troops.

For the U.S. airmen here, the mission was clear: transport Rwandan troops and equipment to Al-Fashir, Sudan, where they will join other African Union troops in mitigating the humanitarian crisis in the country's Darfur region.

The mission may have been clear and simple for the Americans involved, but as the airmen quickly realized, the Rwandans did not view the U.S. Air Force's airlift to Darfur as just another day at work.

Marching to the music of their own formal military band, the Rwandan troops carried more than their rifles as they entered the belly of the C-130. Their faces seemed to carry with them the concerns of a country that only 10 years ago experienced the horror of genocide.

In 1994, the Hutu-dominated regime of Rwanda launched a genocidal attack against the minority Tutsi people lasting 100 days and resulting in the brutal death of about 800,000 people. Most U.S. airmen, before arriving in Kigali, were only remotely aware of the genocide that forever changed the people of Rwanda.

"We provided the folks deploying here an intelligence briefing before we arrived in an effort to provide them a basic understanding of what we're doing here," said Air Force Col. Robert Baine, 322nd Air Expeditionary Group commander. "We should understand the importance of this mission not only for the U.S. and the (African Union), but for the Rwandans and the people dying in Darfur."

As the command-and-control element for airlift operations was set up in Kigali, Baine sought other ways for the deployed airmen to learn about the history of the country. The Rwandans arranged a free tour for the deployed airmen to view the Gisozi Genocide Memorial.

"It's a very powerful reminder as to why we're here," said Baine. "The Rwandans understand that people can do pretty inhumane things, and when the world has the opportunity to step in, it should."

At the genocide memorial, the sight of bones and skulls preserved on shelves told haunting stories of Rwanda's darkest hour.

"That humans could do that to other humans," said Master Sgt. Kelly Burkhard, 322nd AEG superintendent of communications and information. "I just can't imagine the horror of the genocide that happened here."

While the airmen toured the multi-story memorial building full of Rwanda 's tragic history, on the other side of town Rwandan soldiers prepared to deploy to Darfur, where United Nations officials say the worse humanitarian crisis in the world today continues.

"The Rwandans experienced genocide firsthand," said Burkhard. "I think they're passionate about stopping the brutality."

Americans are also passionate about saving lives. The U.S. government has donated more than $300 million dollars in humanitarian aid for Darfur, of which, $75 million has gone to support the 200,000 refugees who have fled Darfur into eastern Chad.

"The U.S. Air Force's contribution to ending this crisis is just one part of a larger U.S. and international effort," said Baine. "The world has not forgotten Darfur. Our president, our Congress and our State Department have been working for the last two years to resolve this crisis. American troops are not going on the ground. Our focus is providing airlift for African Union forces so they can save African lives."

(Air Force Capt. Heather Healy is assigned to 322nd Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs. Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.)

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